Content management systems: a business buyer's guide
1st Nov 2012 | 10:07
How to choose the right content management system (CMS) for your business
On the web, content is king; if you have a website, then it's content that will drive traffic to your site and your products and services, and it's content that will keep Google coming back for more.
To get that content on your site you will need a content management system (CMS). In truth a CMS is much more than a management system, it's also a content creation systems, a search engine optimisation system, a workflow management system and more, so it's essential that when you choose a CMS you get it right.
CMS systems have traditionally been used by organisations to create, text-heavy sites like an online magazine, or a blog-based website. But increasingly CMS system are also being used to create whole websites from simple "about us" sections thorough to sophisticated e-commerce functionality for selling goods and services, through to Tumblr-like sites that combine graphics and video and text.
This expectation that a CMS system can create every type of site, has however created problems for many businesses, and there are many stories of businesses spending large sums of money on CMS systems, and then finding that a year down the line, they have to rip up what they have and start again.
Many of the problems with buying CMS systems are caused by the IT departments specifying the CMS solution, without consulting the people who will use it on a day-to-day basis to find out what they need. The secret is to instead thoroughly investigate and audit how you are preparing content now – or hope to do in the future - and to include everyone in the research process before you specify anything.
Once you know what you want the next step is to consider the choices on offer.
As with most software the first choice you have is between buy or build. Building the software means you get a solution that exactly fits your requirements. Buying means you get something fast and has the bugs already worked out of it. However with CMS solutions the initial choice isn't that clear-cut, as some of the buying options only deliver a framework that requires some additional work before it can publish any content to the web.
Object v's Template driven
CMS systems come in two basic flavours, object-based and template-based. With object-based CMS systems you construct each page of your site individually from content objects. It's not a solution that works out of the box, you will need training, and creating your first site is going to take weeks or months, rather than hours.
However, you do get something that is incredibly flexible, so you can use content wherever you want. For example, you could have a CMS driven box-out within your e-commerce package and every page on your site could look different.
Typically object-driven CMS systems are best used by agencies, they work well if you need to add content to other systems – although you may need some additional middleware to get this working which adds to the costs - and they're good for design-driven rather than content-driven sites.
Template-driven CMS solutions, are much easier to use, they work out of the box, or online - as many are hosted – with sites created in hours. However by their very nature they aren't as flexible as object-based system. The advantage of template-driven solutions is there are a number of Open Source CMS platforms with vibrant developer communities, which can be modified to add further flexibility if you are willing to pay for the extra development.
Template-driven sites are best for text-heavy, content driven solutions such as blogs, sites with rich product content, magazines and news driven sites, where the text, video and pictures are stored in a standard and rigid structure.
Add-ons, widgets, and plug-ins
One of the biggest CMS platforms is WordPress, and the reason why it's so big is the number of third-party plug-ins and widgets available. It's free to use and there are tens of thousands of add-ons covering everything from advert management through to "under construction" pages. There are also a huge number of developers and designers who can tweak the platform, to whatever look and feel you require.
When choosing a CMS you should look at what's available now, and look at what you will be needing in the near future. Mobile, video and social media are all things you should be looking at now - no matter what sort of site you are running. Integration into third-party sites such as Facebook - either directly or through an API - should be something that you have on your radar. If these aren't available in the core CMS they should be at least available with a third-party solution.
If possible, talk to the vendor and see what their roadmap includes for future periods, and talk to established users to see how well the vendor has stuck to the roadmap in the past.
Bigger businesses, where there are multiple stakeholders on every project will want the ability to show stakeholders copy before it goes live. However, you don't want to have to send them a screenshot via email every time you make a change, and ideally you won't want them to be able to make changes without an audit trail existing.
A content management system needs the ability for more than one person to use the system at any one time, and will need the ability to have a hierarchy of sign-offs for pages and content.
Inevitably there will be someone who assumes the role of gatekeeper for the content management system. They need the ability to see any content before it goes live, and most importantly they need to be able to see the content as the end-user will see it.
While it's possible to see content and edit it on all CMS systems it's surprising just how many CMS systems don't give you the ability to see a WYSIWYG view of the page. Unless you are a really skilled editor, it's only when you can see the page in situ that you notice some problems.
Search engine optimisation in a CMS
Google loves content, so the ability to have search engine optimisation (SEO) included in the CMS makes sense. It will also save you money compared to the costs of employing an SEO expert.
Most SEO is achieved by linking the content with keywords and key phrases and with content tags into multiple sections of your site. For example a page might be tagged as news, but it could also be tagged as a hardware review, or a feature, and the keywords are likely to be things that describe what the content is about. So the tags and keywords on an early hands-on review on Microsoft's new Surface tablet in a CMS systems would probably be tagged as News and Review, and have would have the keywords, hardware, Microsoft, Microsoft Surface, tablet and mobile.
The keywords and tags could then be automatically used in the page's meta tags for SEO purposes and used as links into further content on the site for readers keen to see alternatives to the Surface.
While external search is important, equally important is an internal search that works. There are many CMS products that have searches that work on keywords only, or that only search on the headlines and standfirsts. Searches should allow an end-user to search all the content in the CMS, with words and phrases. Ideally searches should also be able to be refined, so that users can see content that was for example produced in the last week, or month or was just in a particular tag ike a review or had a certain keyword.
While search engines certainly drive content to websites, the next big driver is social media sites. The ability for a CMS to push content out to a Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, either automatically as the content goes live, or at certain times of the day is a definite plus point to have in a CMS.
While pushing content out to social media is a good way to get people talking about your content, it's also useful to have the ability to let readers make comments and to discuss the content on your own site.
The advantage to your site is the free user-generated content will add to the perception that your site is constantly being updated, additionally it also helps in SEO. However there are drawbacks. Unless you vet the content as it arrives, then you won't have any control over the comments and you could become home to unwanted spam comments – most CMS systems have plug-ins to filter out spam but they're not fool proof or will filter out content that contains URLs.
CMS for mobile devices
CMS software products are designed to build websites for desktops, however there are an increasing number of users who want to access content on mobiles, tablets, IPTV etc. You should make sure that at the very least your CMS can scale-down content to fit on a mobile screen and cope with touch screens.
Mobile should be a key consideration. If the CMS can't adapt to mobile then it should at the very least be able to output content to an RSS feed – the de facto conversion standard for mobile website software - so that the content can be adapted into a mobile-friendly format.
Although many CMS systems include analytics they're never going to be as sophisticated as dedicated service such as Adobe's Omniture or Google Analytics. Your CMS should be able to accommodate analytic tags and be able to pass dynamic information, such as the page name through to the analytics tags if required.
This should also work on the mobile sites as well as the desktop sites, otherwise you will only see part of your traffic, and you won't be able to see how your users work between the different channels.
Finally, as we said earlier before you specify a CMS look at how the content is currently produced for your site. Talk to everyone from the content creators through to the content doorkeepers, and also talk to SEO, social and analytics specialists before you go ahead and make a purchase.